The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef with Chipotle (Part 1)

By Greg Peterson

Many have probably seen or heard about Chipotle’s commercial, “The Scarecrow” and their recent video series, “Farmed and Dangerous.” Chipotle claims these spots are shedding light on the “inhumane” and “unsustainable” nature of “industrial farming.” They try to use the videos to inform people of the perceived problems with the current food system, such as the difference between meat that is ethically raised and meat that isn’t. Their approach seems genuine and sincere at first and is attracting a lot of attention from consumers. I’m certain that Chipotle is doing a lot of positive things with their “food with integrity” approach and to be clear, I do agree with the general ideals Chipotle claims they are supporting:

  • The consumer does deserve healthy meat from humanely raised animals
  • The family farmer is who should be raising their food
  • Ethical behavior should be of greater concern than profit.

What I don’t agree with is Chipotle’s definitions of family farmers, humanely raised animals, and ethical behavior. As a 5th generation family farmer in central Kansas, I along with my family raise cattle for beef production. Our farm is quite large, with an operation of over 1,000 head, and yes, we raise our livestock “conventionally.” That means our cattle are confined in pens, antibiotics are given to revive them when they are sick, and hormones are administered to them to promote healthy growth. These are all methods Chipotle has deemed “unhealthy, unsustainable, and unethical” and are some of the main things they attack in their video series. So……

While it may seem that Chipotle is on the side of family farmers, the truth is that they are attacking thousands of family farms across America like ours that fit the definition of an “industrial farm.”

If you were to Google these conventional methods, I’m sure most of what you would find is negativity. The “Google search” certainly supports Chipotle’s claims. There are many out there who have created videos and written blogs about these methods that are very misinformed, twisted to fit an agenda, and sometimes even outright lies.

Before you read these articles, you should always ask yourself:

  • How many of these people have actually visited real farms (like ours) in person that use these methods? (Most are relying on Internet content and other’s opinions)
  • Where is the scientific proof (not opinions) that these methods are bad?

Nearly everyone who believes these methods are wrong (including Chipotle) are basing their beliefs on what seems to be everyone’s collective emotions toward the concepts, and have never actually seen the way the overwhelming majority of conventional beef is raised in person. I do say majority because there are exceptions where animals are not treated correctly, and I will address that later on. There are so many misconceptions on this topic, believe me.

“Believe me.”

Why am I, Greg Peterson, asking the people reading this to trust what I have to say on this topic? Well first of all, I am a real farmer, and I have been all of my life. I base my beliefs off of personal experience on a real farm and the real, independent, scientific research that has been done on the topics. The reality of who I am compared to the propaganda (from both sides of the argument) of what you might read on the Internet is what should set me apart. As a farmer, I will actually do as much research as anyone into what I grow as food. It’s my livelihood. Who do you think is more of an expert on farming, a blogger from the city, an overpaid celebrity, a giant fast food corporation, or a real life family farmer? I’m not a corporate spokesman, a paid journalist, or a crazed activist. I’m a down-to-earth, hard-working farmer, who isn’t getting paid a dime to write any of this. Quite honestly, I am literally writing this article for the sole purpose of promoting the truth and correcting the false information that so many believe about some of the most valuable people in the world, family farmers.

Furthermore, my own family eats our own beef and our own crops (straight from the field!) and we have never doubted the quality of them for a second. I definitely understand why people are scared of what Chipotle and others are claiming is happening in agriculture and are concerned about what they are eating, but if my family trusts what we are growing and the methods that we use enough to eat it ourselves, then why shouldn’t you?

I’m asking for your trust in reading this, and I know that is a hard thing to gain these days. There is so much misinformation out there anymore. But I hope that most of you have followed my brothers and I for awhile now and understand who we are, what we are about, and where we are coming from. Please, keep an open mind with what you are about to read, because it will probably contradict a lot of different things you have heard about large agriculture operations.

Let’s talk about the 3 different definitions I believe Chipotle has gotten wrong:

Part 1: The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle

Part 2: The Definition of a Family Farmer

Part 3: The Definition of a Humanely Raised Animal

Part 4: The Definition of Ethical Behavior

The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle (Part 2): The Definition of a Family Farmer

Chipotle’s videos depict today’s farmers as huge, industrial farmers, concerned not about ethics and animal welfare, but motivated rather by greed and money. This could not be further from the truth!

There are over 2 million farmers in this country. Each of whom are working long hours, braving extreme weather, and tirelessly caring for land and livestock. How many of those farmers are family farmers? 96 percent of them, according to the USDA, including the farm I work on with my brothers, my parents and my sister. In fact, I’ve never actually met a farmer who isn’t a family farmer! Have you? I’m sure there are a few out there, but even then, do you really think a farm run by non-family members would operate any differently from those that are?

Understand this: The vast majority of farms are operated just like the family farm that I live and work on. We have many videos about how our operation works on our YouTube Channel and we hope that this can give you an idea of what a typical family farm actually looks like!

The Peterson Family in front of our family farm!

The Peterson Family in front of our family farm!

These family farms are not the family farms from fifty years ago, however. Higher land prices and higher input costs have made it extremely tough to make much of a profit as a farmer, especially on a small farm. Few farming opportunities and the draw of a higher salary in the city have also led to a decline of young people returning to their family’s farm. These factors contributed to a decline in the number of farms and the growth of the average size of a typical family farm. Many family farms joined together to farm “corporately” (Our father and grandfather farmed together as a corporation, as will the Peterson Farm Bros) to help absorb the massive costs of running a modern day farm. Thankfully, new technology such as larger equipment, GPS technology, and automated processes have allowed for farmers to farm more acres and raise more livestock per farmer, which has allowed agricultural production to thrive in recent years. Many family farms have thousands of acres of land and over a thousand head of livestock, including ours.

An “industrial farm” is considered a large-scale farming operation with over 1,000 acres of ground or over 1,000 head of livestock (otherwise known as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). This definition fits our family farm and many others I know of. These bigger farms have allowed for greater food production on less land. In 1960, one farmer fed just 25 people. Today, the average family farmer feeds over 155 people and the average American spends only about 6% of their income on their food, compared to 17% in 1960. Less expensive food has allowed for 98% of the population to spend all of their time doing something else besides raising their own food. How would you like it if you spent each day of your life growing your own food, instead of working at your current job and spending loads of time and money on family, leisure, and entertainment?

As you can see, the “industrial farming” Chipotle is so against is actually taking place on family farms just like ours. However, please hear me out! Do you really think huge farms equate to wealthy, spoiled families and rich, powerful CEO-like farmers that Chipotle depicts? Of course not! Many large family farms still have trouble making a profit. Droughts, floods, blizzards, market prices, and equipment breakdowns can wipe away all of our profit in an instant. Farmers, no matter how big or small, still have to work crazy long hours, still have to get their clothes dirty, and still have to deal with the defeat and sadness of losing a crop or losing an animal to sickness. It’s not an easy job. And that is why farmers use these methods and new technology, to make their job a little easier!

However, just because family farming operations are bigger than they used to be, doesn’t mean they have lost the ethical values every family farm was founded on! I firmly believe there is no better place to raise a child than on a farm, big or small. I was outside helping my dad feed cattle before I went to preschool. I learned to drive a tractor when I was 5. I put in my first 10-hour workday when I was in fifth grade. And I loved every minute of it! The farming community that I have experienced in my travels throughout the country is one represented by strong ethical values, hard work ethic, and legendary perseverance no matter what the size, type, or location. If you’ve met a farmer that doesn’t exhibit these qualities, I would be extremely surprised!

Chipotle saying that bigger family farmers are “industrialized” and “evil” is one of the biggest reasons everyone in the farming community has reacted so strongly to their commercials. It is a skewed portrayal. In fact, I don’t believe the words “industrial,” “factory,” or “corporate” should ever be associated with farms, due to their negative connotations. While some of us farm families are bigger and some of us are smaller, we in the agricultural community generally tend to stick together, you know, kind of like a FAMILY! So, Chipotle, when you mess with some of us, you mess with all of us!

Part 1: The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle

Part 2: The Definition of a Family Farm

Part 3: The Definition of a Humanely Raised Animal

Part 4: The Definition of Ethical Behavior

The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle (Part 3): The Definition of a Humanely Raised Animal

The way I would define “humanely raised” in the animal agriculture sense is:

Treating animals with care and respect, keeping animals healthy, and allowing animals to live comfortable lives.

I believe that the vast majority of farmers, both conventional and organic, are doing just that. Any true livestock farmer will tell you that in order to make a profit in the livestock industry, you must treat your animals well. This is especially important in today’s livestock economy, as higher buying costs and higher feed costs have allowed for a very thin margin of profit. One of Chipotle’s prevalent claims in their videos is that animal agriculture abuses animals because we are motivated only by greed and money. I would argue that it wouldn’t make any financial sense to abuse our animals or raise them incorrectly. If we did then we would fail miserably, and in turn we would lose money. If our animals are not treated with care, not kept healthy, and not kept comfortable, our slim, marginal chance of being a successful livestock farmer is absolutely destroyed!

Based on my years of experience in the agricultural community, I believe that nearly every animal in this country is treated ethically, with care and respect. I do agree that there are a few exceptions, many of which can be found on YouTube and animal activist websites, where animals are being abused on farms. These videos make me sick to my stomach because I as a farmer love animals just as much as anyone, and everyone in the agricultural community is ashamed of these videos as well. It is a horrible misrepresentation of the way that the vast majority of the livestock community actually raises their animals.

However, these few exceptions are allowing animal activists to promote the idea that all of animal agriculture is an abusive industry, even though only a few cases have been reported. Think about it, there are around 10 billion animals raised for meat production each year in the United States and there are only a handful of videos that come out each year. That in no way makes those terrible incidents okay, but it goes to show that the OVERWHELMING majority of livestock farmers treat their animals with care and respect and we in the agriculture community WILL NOT TOLERATE mistreatment of animals.

I will now address how we treat our animals humanely as cattle farmers. I won’t take the time to address the other livestock farming operations (such as dairy, poultry or swine) but I can assure you that they treat their animals just as humanely as we do. Farms of any type are extremely regulated in order to assure quality and ethics. Don’t believe me? Please, tour a real farm and ask a real farmer, live and in person! (Don’t rely on Internet articles!)

How do we treat our animals with care and respect?

The reason we keep our cattle in confined areas is because it makes it a whole lot easier for us to care for them! When animals are out on “free-range” pasture (like Chipotle requests) they may not be as available to the farmer, as he is not always around to check on how they are doing. Keeping animals on the location of your farm is a lot more convenient, a lot less work, and a lot more practical. When confined on the farm, a farmer can check on the animals multiple times per day and treat them at the first sign of sickness, which leads to a greater chance of recovery.

Of course, this isn’t to say that free-range pasture fed cattle aren’t well taken care! Most people don’t realize that beef cattle spend most of their lives on free-range pasture grass! This is something that Chipotle and many people on the Internet really can’t seem to get straight. Beef cattle are born and raised on pasture grass with their mama cows, weaned after about a year and sent to farmers like us who feed them specific nutrients (mineral, alfalfa hay, and corn silage) designed for efficient and healthy beef production. Near the very end of their lives, they are sent to finishing farms where they are fattened before butchering.

I do not believe that any of these steps in the beef production process are “better” than the others, just like I don’t believe organic farming is better than conventional. Having cattle out on pasture is great, as long as there is enough grass. During the winter, the grass doesn’t grow and is often covered with snow. Even farmers who normally have cattle on grass bring them back to confinement during the winter where there is plentiful food and shelter from the elements. Grass only grows for a few months out of the year and thousands of acres of grassland are being taken away each year due to urban sprawl. This also means that there little grass pasture for sale, and if it does sell it goes for as much as $3,000 an acre, which can make it tough for any farmer to raise cattle on grass. So while the idea of all of our cattle grazing on a wide-open field is great, it would not be ideal for all cattle in this country to be raised on grass their entire lives.

In summary, each step of the beef cattle process serves a purpose, and all are needed for the most efficient process possible. Efficiency means healthier cattle, healthier cattle means less work for the farmer, and less work for the farmer means a greater chance for profit! Yes, a farmer is concerned about his ability to stay in the business he loves, but he is also just as concerned about the well being of his animals. Don’t believe me? Visit a real farm and ask a farmer!

How do we keep our animals healthy?

Animals get sick sometimes, just like humans. And just like humans and their doctors, there are methods farmers and veterinarians use to help prevent and treat sickness in animals.

We give our cattle preventative care as soon as they arrive on our farm to make sure they are less prone to sickness. This process begins with a liquid that is poured onto the back of the cattle to prevent worms and lice. It also includes two small shots of vaccine and a nasal application that size-wise are all three equivalent to about a teaspoon (2 mL). These vaccines all help our cattle build immunity to prevent sickness. Humans are constantly trying to keep themselves from getting sick (vaccines, vitamins, preventative medicines), so we should be able to understand this process.

Our cattle are also given antibiotics when they do get sick to help them back on the road to recovery. If we were to refuse to give antibiotics to animals (like Chipotle requests) their chance of survival would be minimal, leading to a lot of suffering and eventually death. Now that’s what I would call inhumane! This is why there usually aren’t adequate antibiotic-free meat supplies for Chipotle to use. There aren’t many farmers willing to treat their animals with that kind of neglect. Without antibiotics, you are risking the health of your animals, and by risking the health of your animals you are risking your ability to make money. What kind of farmer is interested in that?

To be clear, when we do give our animals antibiotics, the recommended dosage comes from a professional veterinarian. The amount is a smaller (weight-based) dosage than that which you would give to your children (Typically about 10 mL per head). The antibiotics are given into the bloodstream of the animal and the FDA requires antibiotic withdrawal for a specific number of days before the animal is butchered to ensure there is no residue remaining in the animal. The FDA also prohibits excessive use of antibiotics, which is why Chipotle’s depiction (“pumping” it into animals) in their commercials is absolutely false and downright offensive to cattle farmers everywhere.

Another requirement of Chipotle’s “healthy meat supply” is that it has to be “hormone free.” Cattle farmers have been using growth hormones for nearly 60 years. (Swine and poultry do not use growth hormones, as there is no added benefit.) The USDA and the FDA require these hormones to undergo scientific testing to make sure they’re safe for the animals and humans. Chipotle depicts hormone use in cattle as excessive, unsafe, and detrimental to the quality of the meat. Again, this is so far from the truth!

Our cattle, like most beef cattle, are given growth hormones to help them convert their feed into lean muscle more efficiently. People are demanding leaner cuts of beef and this is a safe way to produce it. The growth hormones are given into the ear of the animal as a tiny implant about the size of a tic-tac. That’s it. One of the biggest misconceptions Chipotle is portraying is the amount of hormones that go into cattle.

Check out this comparison of hormones in beef compared to other foods:

Photo Credit to Kassi Williams

Photo Credit to Kassi Williams

“One serving of beef from a steer implanted with a growth promotant has nearly 20 times less estrogen than what the FDA permits and thousands of times less than what our bodies naturally produce, not to mention a fraction of what is present in many other foods such as cabbage and grains.” – Beef Checkoff

As you can see, there shouldn’t be any concern with giving growth hormones to cattle. The cattle aren’t growing unnaturally when given growth hormones, they are just using their growth ability more efficiently and producing healthier, leaner beef. And, just like with antibiotics, the FDA requires that all animals go through a growth hormone withdrawal period to ensure that everything has worked its way out of the animal’s system before that meat can enter the food supply.

How do we allow our animals to live comfortable lives?

This is a subject in which there are many differing opinions. One person’s definition of an animal living a comfortable life is completely different from another person’s definition. Chipotle’s commercials depict conventionally raised animal’s lives as completely miserable. This is another outright lie that is frustrating farmers everywhere, and I believe is only portrayed that way so that consumers are saddened into buying Chipotle’s products that are coming from “happy cows.”

The appearance of CAFOs (large animal confinements of over 1,000 head, like our farm) may sometimes convey that conditions are causing animals to live their lives in suffering, simply due to the sheer volume of animals in one place. I’ve already covered the reasons why confinements allow farmers to care for animals more efficiently. But, you may still be asking, are the animals actually comfortable in these confinements?

This is where I must encourage you to visit an actual real-life farm of this proportion, whether it is cattle, poultry, or swine. Videos, words, and pictures can too easily be manipulated to fit either side of the agenda. I spend many hours each day with our cattle and have had plenty of time to observe and I can assure you, they look to be about as comfortable as cattle can be!

What I mean by that is this: Cattle, like most livestock, are not overly concerned with their surroundings. They don’t need a fitness center or a playground in the pen to keep them occupied. They don’t need books to read, movies to watch, or cell phones to talk to their friends. They don’t need to go on a daily jog around the neighborhood to stay fit. They do have ways of entertaining themselves, such as sniffing everything in sight, mooing to one another, licking their noses, whisking their tails back and forth, and laying down for a snooze, but what cattle really NEED is nutritional food, an adequate water supply, room to move around, and protection from the elements.

Animal confinements give cattle these basic needs just as much as a “free-range” pasture does if not more so. Free-range pastures have a limited supply of grass that is completely covered in snow during the winter, ponds that run dry in times of drought, and little protection from weather elements. Confinements have plenty of feed stored up from the summer that is nutritious and healthy, waters that don’t run dry, and protection from the elements. There is plenty of room to move around in these confinements. If you don’t believe me, visit a farm! Cattle, as well as other animals, spend 95 percent of their days standing in one place eating food anyway, regardless of whether or not they are in a “free-range” environment. They do need room to move around, but they don’t need miles and miles of space to be happy. Both confinements and free-range environments provide this.

Again, I’m not trying to say that it is better to raise cattle in feedlots than in pastures. There are many benefits to both, and as I said earlier, both are used in the production of the vast majority of beef. These methods are what have evolved from the days of cattle drives and cowboys because they are what work the best. If there’s one thing you can learn from reading all of this, it’s that everything done in agriculture is done for specific purposes. These purposes are not only for making a profit, but also to benefit the farmer and the animal.

Part 1: The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle

Part 2: The Definition of a Family Farmer

Part 3: The Definition of a Humanely Raised Animal

Part 4: The Definition of Ethical Behavior

The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle (Part 4): The Definition of Ethical Behavior

Chipotle’s videos portray farmers as unethical. The main character of “Farmed and Dangerous” depicts farmers as a CEO of a huge company who will do whatever it takes to make as much money as possible. While farmers are concerned about staying in business and supporting their family so they can continue to grow the food you eat, we are also very concerned about safety, sustainability, conservation, and overall ethical behavior. I hope I’ve been able to communicate this in the previous sections. However, the farmer’s emotional connection to the land he works on and the animals he raises can really only be understood by visiting a real farm and talking to a real farmer.

On the flip side, Chipotle also loves to portray themselves as a company that prides itself on ethical behavior. After reading all of the above, I hope you can understand why I struggle with this claim. In fact, I believe (ironically) that Chipotle may actually be the ones who are being unethical and greedy in the whole situation:

-Chipotle is a huge corporation that owns more than 1,500 restaurants and boasts a stock-market value of more than $15 billion. Its shares currently trade at about $550 apiece. Their marketing schemes attempt to tear down huge farms and support the little guy. But after reading this I hope you can see that in reality, THEY are the huge industry greedily trying to make a profit, and FAMILY FARMERS are the little guy, despite the size of our farms (we aren’t rich for crying out loud!).

-Chipotle claims to have “food with integrity” that is better than other fast food restaurants. What about a burrito loaded with fat (58.5 grams), sodium (2,475 mg) and calories (1,225) makes it any better than any other fast food out there? And why do they never mention the terribly unhealthy soft drinks they serve? How do their false claims against family farmers give their burritos more integrity? Are they not misleading consumers into thinking they are getting “better” food, when a lot of the time they are getting their supply from the very farmers they are attacking?

(See: Big Mac Nutrition vs. Chipotle Burrito Nutrition)

-In “Farmed and Dangerous,” Chipotle spent millions of dollars to pay big city actors to try and depict modern day agriculture in a comedy. These actors have no concept of what a real farm is like, and are only saying what they are paid to say. Chipotle claims this series is a “fictional comedy,” but they won’t argue with people who believe it is exactly what real agriculture looks like. I’ve seen many comments on the videos where people are completely misinformed but still tell Chipotle good job. Chipotle only replies with “Thanks!” and never corrects the fact that what they commented was untrue. They are concerned only with support from the consumers who pay them money, not the truth.

-In “The Scarecrow,” Chipotle uses a fictional cartoon to depict modern day agriculture. If they truly believe modern day agriculture is comparable to that cartoon, why not use actual footage from actual farms? The current anti-big agriculture movement is entirely based on skewed promotion like this (heavily edited and/or cartoon videos) and I believe it is truly unethical. If you can’t convince someone of something by showing them real life evidence, it’s probably not the truth.

-Chipotle posted a picture of the huge party they had following the release of “Farmed and Dangerous.” This to me captures how I feel about their approach. Do you think any farmers were invited to this big-city event? Do you think the celebration is really based on promoting the truth about agriculture? Or are they celebrating the fact that their marketing technique is convincing people to buy more of their burritos? While they are celebrating the misleading of consumers in their New York City event venue, farmers around the country are still hard at work raising the very food they eat.

The "Farmed and Dangerous" after party in New York City.

The “Farmed and Dangerous” after party in New York City. (Photo credit to Chipotle)

-Chipotle offers no solutions to their so-called “problems” with agriculture. All I see is that they are telling consumers to stop supporting big farmers and start buying more Chipotle burritos. Whenever someone’s solution to a problem is to give them more of your money, you should be very skeptical of their intent and motives.

In conclusion:

Farming certainly isn’t perfect. Neither are farmers. Neither is Chipotle. Neither are consumers. We must all remember this as we move forward. Sustainable food production is something that everyone should continue to shoot for, both farmers and consumers alike. There will be billions more people for farmers to feed in the next couple of decades. However, if we want to reach sustainable food production people MUST be willing to accept new technology in farming while still standing for the truth and ethical values. Resorting to using mistruths to bash the farmers who are feeding the world is not a solution! We must work together to find new solutions that are not in conflict with the current ones we already have. If we do that, feeding the world AND taking care of the world can coexist.

My challenge to consumers: Challenge companies like Chipotle to stand for TRUTH, not just for successful marketing. If you want to live a healthy life, cook for yourself more often, eat in moderation, and exercise daily. Continue to ask questions about modern day agriculture and the food you are eating. But be careful where you are getting your information from. Be skeptical. If you really want to be sure of the truth, visit real farms in your area to see with your own eyes what is happening and talk with real farmers about the issues we’ve talked about.

My challenge to farmers: Be transparent. We should have nothing to hide! Open up your farm to the public to allow them to see the real life production of their food. Try to communicate the beauty of farming together as a family. Answer questions consumers have to the best of your ability. And most importantly, always be on the lookout for ways to allow your farming operation to become more sustainable, more eco-friendly, and more efficient! Farming is an industry that has to constantly evolve for the better. If we still farmed like we did in the ‘50’s there would obviously be a lot of problems!

My challenge to Chipotle: Continue with your approach to provide quality fast food to consumers that comes from local, family farms! Continue to use mainly organic food products if you want, I have no problem with that! But please, DO NOT ATTACK LARGER FAMILY FARMERS! Start making videos and advertisements showing the TRUTH about family farms in America. You have an open invitation to come out and visit our farm. I hope other farmers will follow suit. I believe searching for and promoting the truth about modern day agriculture will get you a lot farther with customers than promoting lies and half-truths for profit’s sake. Ethics should always be more important than profit. Sustainable food production can and will happen if we are all working together instead of attacking each other with unethical profit-driven motives! Listen, I used to eat at your restaurant every week in college! Your food was delicious! But, sadly, you have lost a valued customer for the time being. If you do decide to change your approach, and support all farmers who are practicing ethical behavior and producing safe, high quality food, I would absolutely love to start eating your burritos again! Hope to hear from you soon, Chipotle!

Part 1: The Peterson Farm Bros’ Beef With Chipotle

Part 2: The Definition of a Family Farmer

Part 3: The Definition of a Humanely Raised Animal

Part 4: The Definition of Ethical Behavior